Masking Expert Disagreement

A recent paper by John Beatty, Masking Disagreement among Experts, asks why scientific committees do not report on internal disagreements:

Expert committee reports … often implicitly or explicitly agree to withhold information – for example when they "jointly accept" the position that they report. … What could possibly count in favor of simplifying or jointly accepting a position, and thereby masking the extent of disagreement? One might offer paternalistic reasons. … it is (supposedly) good for the public that they speak with one voice, just as it is (supposedly) good for children if their parents put aside differences in their views of child-rearing and issue univocal advice…

Another reason … is to protect their expert status. As long as they openly contest each other’s knowledge with regard to an issue of public concern, they may raise questions in the minds of the lay public as to whether they know what needs to be known, and even whether they have the competence to figure it out. … An alternative way in which putative experts might maintain their relevance in the face of persistent disagreement is to appeal to their track record on issues of public concern. … If, however, there is no track record to appeal to, or if the track record is unappealing, then downplaying their current disagreements might be crucial to gaining the public’s confidence.

Can we reasonably infer that experts who do not reveal their disagreements have an unappealing track record, know less than they pretend, or treat the public like children?   I’ll bet someone will offer us an unseen bias to justify this seen bias.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Can we reasonably infer that experts who do not reveal their disagreements have an unappealing track record, know less than they pretend, or treat the public like children?

    My feelings are that, reasonably: no, no, and to some extent. There are many reasons why a committee will not reveal their disagreements – timidity, deferrence, awarness of unsolved issues, or maybe just because it’s their job (who sets up these comittees, and why? If they’re organised by politicians/business to “come up with a solution”, then of course they’ll hammer out a consensus). Another alternative (think global warming) is that they may feel they agree much more than they disagree, and that disagreements garner undue publicity (this may be your “justify a bias with another bias” 🙂

    Since there are a multitude of possible reasons, I don’t see why we can say that unappealing track record is a more likely possibility.

    But treating the public or their superiors like children, definetly. Knowing when that’s justified is another matter.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, “timidity, deference, awareness of unsolved issues” are descriptors, not good reasons.

  • Dagon

    Can we reasonably infer that experts who do not reveal their disagreements have an unappealing track record, know less than they pretend, or treat the public like children?

    Correlation and causality are hard to tease apart here. I assert that MOST experts have an unappealing track record, know less than they pretend, and treat the public like children.

    The degree of hiding disagreements varies by field more than by individual expert in a field, and finding two experts with different policies on airing of disagreements but are otherwise comparable on any topic is very hard.

  • http://julesandjames.blogspot.com/ James Annan

    If “treat the public like children” covers any situation where experts simplify for general consumption then of course this is precisely their job when participating in scientific committees, so your jibe is true by definition.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, “timidity, deference, awareness of unsolved issues” are descriptors, not good reasons.

    I don’t think of them as “good” reasons – I just feel that they are reasons why scientists would not want to publicize disagreements, that don’t depend on their competence in their field. A few physicists I know are so timid that they’d probably go along with any consensus, and would cringe at any public disagreement, even though they are quite brilliant.

    Are things different in other sciences? I mean, can you be a brilliant economist but have no skills at interacting with committees or the public? Or is that more part of the job?

  • halcyon

    I believe it’s the first issue: to “guide” the “gullible” public.

    Now, whether this makes it right or not, I personally do believe it is realistic to assume the following:

    Public discussion <> Scientific Discussion

    Scientists have had to notice the following in the last 100 years:

    1) Lobby groups attack scientific minute disagreements and paint a picture that experts “do not know”, even if they only disagree on minute details, but agree 100% on all the major issues. Scientific reasoning doesn’t work on dichotomies of wright/wrong, know everything/don’t know anything, but public discussion often does.

    2) Scientific discussion has rules. Public discussion very little (i.e. anything goes, including straw men, ad hominems, non sequiturs, etc.). Granted the rules in science are not always followed, but at least the rules are there. If one tries to participate in the public discussion (different rules, different aims) with scientific principles, one does not often make a lot of progress (as defined by the public discussion).

    3) The general public (i.e. non-experts in a particular field) believe more easily arguments that are: simplified (me included and I’m supposed to be a scientist) and appeal to emotions (ethos, pathos) than reason (logos)

    4) Public discussion are won or lost. There is very often no inherent sense of learning or advancing truth. Arguments and their makers are right or wrong (sadly, often with no regard to scientific fact).

    All in all, public discussions is a separate discourse from scientific discussion.

    One way for scientists to participate in the public discussion is to simplify, reduce complexity (i.e. complex theories), remove uncertainty (i.e. disagreements) and thus, patronize.

    Now, is this right or wrong?

    I leave it up for you to decide 🙂

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    James, there are many kinds of complications that experts skip over because ordinary people’s eye would glaze and they’d lose interest. But internal disagreements of a committee are the opposite – they are considered newsworthy and interesting. So the reason not to mention them can’t be to avoid boring folks.

  • http://timmiano.blogspot.com/2007/04/selection-and-bias-part-iii.html ~Tim Miano Seeks Job

    Selection and Bias (Part III)

    Consider a radical, market-based alternative for reaching scientific consensus. Imagine a betting pool on disputed science questions, where the current odds are treated as the current intellectual consensus.